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The naked truth

By Tom Crawford| Tom Crawford`s Georgia report. Published: JUNE 20, 2009

I don’t usually sit through oral arguments before the Georgia Supreme Court, but I may just do that on Monday when the justices consider an appeal of Willis v. City Of Atlanta.

This case involves five young women who were topless dancers at the Cheetah Lounge, a strip club that has been in operation for so long it probably deserves to be designated an historic landmark. The five dancers — Deanna, Danielle, Ashlie, Olivia and Rachel — were either 19 or 20 years old when Atlanta enacted a city ordinance in 2007 that prohibited persons under 21 to enter any establishment that was licensed to sell alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises.

The ordinance has exemptions that allow underage persons to work in sports stadiums, convenience stores, supermarkets, or breweries that sell alcoholic beverages, but not in adult entertainment clubs. The five women filed suit a year ago alleging that the ordinance violated their rights of free expression, due process and equal protection. They lost at the Superior Court level and have appealed to the Supreme Court.

The outlawed dancers are represented by a lawyer named Alan Begner who attended the same high school as me (Grady High in Atlanta). Needless to say, he chose a drastically different career path.

After our high school days, Alan went to law school and then launched a successful career providing legal counsel for the owners of adult entertainment establishments. If you’re involved in the operation of a swingers club, strip joint, lingerie-modeling shop, or adult website in the Atlanta area, you’ve probably been represented at one point or another by Begner.

Creative Loafing once described him as a “smut attorney,” but I think that’s a demeaning label for Begner. His choice of clients may be distasteful to those who consider themselves to be morally upright pillars of the community, but he is protecting everyone’s First Amendment rights – rights that, as Alan would no doubt remind you, apply to expressions and ideas that some people might find offensive.

In a past dispute involving an adult entertainment operator, a Gwinnett County shopping center, and a restrictive convenant in a lease agreement, Begner filed this stirring appeal on behalf of his client:

“All obscenity is pornography, but not all pornography is obscenity. Obscenity and pornography are not the same thing, although both deal with materials intended to cause sexual arousal in the viewer. Each has different standards . . .”

The shopping mall went too far, Begner argued eloquently, when it tried to ban the sale of “materials of a sexual nature that are intended to provoke only normal, healthy sexual desires, i.e., sex toys; depiction of genitalia or of an anus; anal, oral, or vaginal intercourse, whether actual or simulated as a heterosexual or homosexual act; or masturbation, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or autoerotic.”

It was one of the few times I’ve ever gotten excited simply by reading an appellate court filing.

Begner has won a few and lost some, but keeps plugging away in his fight to protect First Amendment protections that, as much as some might want to deny it, apply to people who work in the adult entertainment business too. “There are a lot of people who enjoy life at the outer edges of conventional morality,” he once told a newspaper interviewer.

During the oral arguments on Monday, I am confident Begner will present a titillating argument that exposes the fallacies and unfairness of a city ordinance that prohibits young women from pursuing their chosen occupation. I want to be there to listen. The fact that some of his clients might be in the courtroom will have absolutely no impact on my decision.

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